See It, Be It

Elsa Caruso considers the scarcity of women in fly fishing

I grew up watching my dad fly fishing. My favourite time of year was when our family would journey to a friend’s farm in Merrijig for the Easter break. We camped on the edge of the Delatite River, kept horses in a makeshift pen near our tents and cooked on the fire every night. Each day I would stand at my dad’s legs watching as he cast, mesmerised by the movement and the precision. I even picked up his fly rod a few times — I would have only been 8 or 9. But it was only recently that I took it seriously, and seriously enjoyed it. I was never the sort of girl that would let gender stop me from doing anything; really, it only ever motivated me more. But I do wonder if subconsciously there was a barrier for me, only seeing older men taking part. The reason I’m into fly fishing now is because I saw it through the eyes of a younger person, my partner Cale. Seeing it in that way made it more accessible to me, and as I am naturally competitive, I wanted to be as good at it as he was. And in my pursuit of proving myself, I really, truly, fell in love with it. Since that fateful day, we’ve been out on the water almost every weekend. I love every element of it — the persistence, the patience, the struggle, the reward, the strategy, the mountains, the animals, the home-cooked food, and a well-earned whisky at the end of the day. But I’m yet to meet another woman in the flesh who does the same thing. In this article, I want to unpack why this is, what that means for me as a woman and what we can do to change it. I am passionate about representation and equal opportunities for women, but also, selfishly, I would like more women to fish with. In my experience in the outdoors before my fishing obsession, I was mostly around horses, and women who rode. I noticed quite young that there is a unique bond that women create in these settings. One of support and encouragement, all wrapped up in a gutsy demeanour. Yes, I grew up watching my dad on the rivers, surrounded by men. But I also watched my mum on horseback, surrounded by ballsy women, and I think that is what is missing for me in this sport, a lack of female energy that rounds out and enhances the whole experience. REPRESENTATION Like I said, I am yet to meet another woman who is an active member of the sport. I know they exist; I’ve chatted to some incredible female anglers online and seen some awesome groups like ‘girls gone fly fishing’ on Facebook. We aren’t some magical breed that only lives through myth and legend. But why are we so rare, at least in Australia and New Zealand? In America, since 2017, female participation in fishing grew by an annual average of 3%, and the gender breakdown for fly fishing specifically, is roughly 70% men to 30% women according to the US 2020 Special Report on Fishing. Currently there are no up-to-date stats regarding gender in fly fishing for Australia, so I did my own research — a poll on Instagram asking my followers how many women they knew in the sport. Most of the answers followed the pattern of ‘my partner fishes with me’ or ‘I know a few here and there’, but the overall sentiment was that they are few and far between. It was also interesting to see that people were understanding of why women may be deterred. I have heard quite a few stories about men on the river getting too close, making derogatory comments, or even suggesting that this isn’t a place for women. I’m sure you’re all aware that safety for women isn’t always guaranteed. So, it’s important that conversations around representation, equality and safety continue to evolve and reflect the diversity of the sport. GETTING INTO THE SPORT I think it only took a few months of Cale and I dating for him to have me in dorky gumboot waders, 4-weight in hand, in the middle of a river. For the past few years we have been all over Victoria and other parts of the country, seeking out unreal fishing experiences and documenting them as well as we can — writing, taking photos and more recently making films. We both work as art directors in advertising, so that helps our creative endeavours. I feel so lucky to have had these experiences, because they have chang- ed the way I live my life. The stress, the rush and the worry of the daily grind really do melt away when you’re far away. Every part of fly fishing makes you stop and consider. If you get frustrated, your line gets tangled. If you hurry, you scare the fish. If you’re impatient your fly beelines for the nearest tree. I can’t imagine my life without all this now, and to be honest, I don’t want to. What I do want is to share these experiences, like they were shared with me. As Cale and I showed more of our adventures I noticed an influx of my female friends taking an interest in what we were doing, and asking if I could take them out on the water. I began to think that this might be a classic case of ‘see it, be it’. For those who are unaware of what that means, it’s a phrase growing in popularity that basically implies that if you can’t see someone who is similar to you (whether that be in age, race, ability or gender) doing something, it can be hard to imagine yourself doing that same thing. So, for fly fishing, if most people in the sport are men, then it’s likely that people who look like those men are the ones to pick it up. Now, I’m not saying this statement is 100% accurate — we have to give credit to the movers and shakers that succeed without anyone paving the way — and this method of role modelling isn’t the only way to increase participation, but it does help. I can’t help but ask myself that if I had seen more women involved at that early age, if one of my dad’s friends casting into the Delatite was a woman, would I have taken more of an interest? And now, with so many women asking me what it’s like and how they can get involved, you can’t help but see the connection. I find all of this so interesting because it means that fly fishing isn’t necessarily exclusive or dismissive of new people joining. Coming into the sport I almost expected it to be a little bit hostile, but I have found the overall welcome into the community incredibly warm and friendly. Unfortunately, there are some bad eggs. I have had a few experiences where there are suggestive comments on photos I post, or a remark on where a woman’s true place is, or even how the physical ability of women renders their efforts in fly fishing pointless. My nature is to brush these comments off and disregard them completely, but they do take a toll. Not in the sense that I question myself, but it does make me crave the companionship of women who have experienced the same thing. I see the lack of women in the sport as a problem of unawareness rather than one of prejudice or malice. It kind of sounds like a chicken before the egg situation, right? How do we get women involved if there aren’t enough women involved to encourage more? Well, like any problem of this nature, you just start — start showing, supporting and encouraging women on the water. YOUR BOYFRIEND DOES it ‘You’re only doing this because your boyfriend does.’ I have heard this several times now, and other comments in the same vein, and they used to really, really bug me. I hated that my success, my hard work or even just my choices were being attributed to someone else. To me, it suggests that women aren’t capable of these sorts of activities, or even of genuinely wanting to do them. It also comes back to this weird underlying expectation that women do what they do to please men, which is definitely not why I fly fish. However, once I had processed what that comment really meant, it ceased to bother me. If you knew me, you would know I am a stubborn person. There is no way I would get up early, trudge through the bush, spend hours on the river, spend a fair bit of money on rods and gear, all because ‘my boyfriend does.’ These sorts of comments get old quickly, and you end up asking yourself what is the point? Are they meant to hurt me, or offend me? Are they genuinely mad I’m successful in a male dominated sport? Am I threatening to them? To me these comments are the tell-tale sign of how we have progressed. For example, I love that for every sexist comment I get on a photo there are ten replacing it with support. There hasn’t been a worse time in history to be ‘that guy’. The people making those comments are going to get called out, by the ‘victim’ and their supporters, or even by brands that are taking steps in the right direction. So, to those few people who believe that fly fishing is purely for men with money: grow up, no one cares, your ideals and your comments are outdated. To those who agree that this sort of thing needs to stop, call it out, and to those that already do, thank you. Seeing is believing ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ I don’t like cliches, but I do love this saying, and I think it perfectly articulates how important imagery is when it comes to representation. We don’t always get the chance to be heard, but imagery allows us to show our talents, successes, our awesome fish and all the amazing moments that happen in between. This is what I mean by ‘see it, be it’. The more women we see loving, enjoying and being a part of this community, the more we accept it and attract more. I follow a lot of fishing accounts that focus purely on women in the sport, which I love, but that’s really the only time I see women being put forward, and most of those are American based accounts. A lot of overseas brands are starting to adopt this outlook as well, with organisations like Simms and Orvis showing women in their imagery and genuinely appearing to be a force for good. It seems like Australia has not received the memo, or it hasn’t been considered yet. And I understand, if your clients are not women then why market to them or use them in your comms? Well, as someone who works in advertising, I can tell you now that if you aren’t speaking to them, they won’t listen. Brand growth relies on normalisation, because the media shows our culture back to us. It is a conduit between progress and where people are at, and translates change into acceptable norms that people feel comfortable buying into. We can’t deny the gender imbalance, so it might be that we need to correct through over-representation. Show women on the water: in ads, on your accounts, in your magazines. Normalise and hero their achievements and success in the sport and hopefully the numbers will start to rise. SHARE YOUR PASSION I won’t dance around the subject — there are very few women involved in this sport, and I think it’s a shame. So many people are missing out on such an incredible pastime. It’s calming, cathartic, and social. It gets you into nature, and it teaches you to respect and care for the environment. Also, I think this sport can benefit from more women. Not only will they bring a financial boost to business, but female energy can bring about change and a different perspective. Women may think differently about conservation, fishing practice, inclusivity or even technique. Lastly, I just want more gals to go fishing with. I want to see more women succeed and thrive in a sport I am proud to be a part of. Why wouldn’t you want to share this lifestyle? From the places we go, to the fish we catch, the food we cook, and the warm, friendly, supportive people who love fly fishing for all the same reasons. It’s a passion, and when you’re passionate about something, you want to share it. So, I ask that this season, you share your passion and take someone new (hopefully a woman) on the water, and watch them fall for fly fishing, just like you did.

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